Fundamental Attribution Error

#1 Fundamental attribution error: why we should worry as much about target contexts as target audiences

In the first of our 10 behavioural biases most relevant to media planning & buying series with Richard Shotton, we look at why situational or contextual factors are often more important than personality in determining behaviour.

Evidence: In 1973, Princeton psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson recruited 40 theology students to help them understand what factors would encourage people to help a stranger in distress.

First, they gauged the students’ personalities by questioning them about whether they were studying theology for their own personal salvation or to help others. They then asked the students to deliver a sermon in a nearby church.

As the students set off for the church, they were either told that they were running late or that they had plenty of time to reach the venue. The final step was to record which students stopped to help a suffering man en route.

The personality of the student made no difference to stopping rates. It didn’t matter whether the students claimed to have an altruistic nature or not. What did make a difference was the context of the decision – whether they were in a rush or not. Only 10% of those who were late stopped, compared to 63% of those who had plenty of time.

Recommendation: This study is of interest as the results run counter to most predictions. Most people think that the personality of the participant will be more important in determining their behaviour than seemingly trivial contextual details, like being late or not. This mismatch between expectations about behaviour and the genuine drivers is known as the fundamental attribution error. 

It may well be that marketing is in the grip of its own fundamental attribution error. Most brands put great efforts into identifying the right target audience. That’s important but identifying the right target context might be even more so.

Luckily for us, psychologists have identified a few contexts that we should consider. Let’s turn to one of those next…

Richard Shotton

Guest Author:Richard Shotton

Behavioural Science wizz and author of The Choice Factory, a best-selling book on how to apply findings from behavioural science to advertising and founder of Astroten.